Michel Pleau was named Canada’s new poet laureate last week, beginning a two-year mandate to “draw Canadians’ attention to the reading and writing of poetry.” Mr. Pleau, winner of the Governor-General’s Award in 2008, has spent two decades in Quebec giving workshops and teaching classes in poetry to students ranging from grade-school pupils to senior citizens. He has also published a dozen books of poetry.
Mr. Pleau spoke to The Globe and Mail from his home in Quebec City.
How did you react when you found out you would be Canada’s next poet laureate?
With immense joy. I’ve been writing poetry for 25 years. It’s my life, my passion.
You speak about poetry as being fundamental to what makes us human.
Poetry has existed since the beginning of humanity. Our ancestors gathered around the fire and tried to communicate with mysteries bigger than themselves. That’s still what we do with poetry. We write with the hope there’s someone at the other end of our poem.
But you also think poets are the object of too many clichés.
When you see poets, it’s in places like the Just for Laughs Festival. They’re caricatures and they’re always a bit ridiculous – you know, a guy with a beret on his head and a scarf around his neck who says inane things in rhyme. It makes people laugh. But poetry is deeper than that.
You want to change that image?
Yes. My goal would be to make people feel that maybe they love poetry more than they imagine.
Our relationship to poetry is often a bit academic. Sometimes it’s linked to bad memories from having to learn poems by heart and reciting them in school. People often don’t realize they’re surrounded by poetry. At the very least, it’s in the songs they listen to. I often say that lovers’ words – when they whisper them to one another in the ear – are an expression of poetry in our daily lives.
You place a lot of emphasis on reaching out to young people.
Every year for the past 15 years, I’ve gone into elementary and high schools. It’s beautiful to watch these kids. When I come away from these encounters, there are five or six of them who want to become poets.
We can’t leave poetry only in the hand of poets. Poetry belongs to everyone.
Did you always want to be a poet?
At one point I wanted to be firefighter. And then a missionary. In a way, missionary work is what I do with poetry. I want to speak about something larger than myself.
You’ve said that you write poetry to reach out to your father, whom you lost at a young age.
I was 12 when he died. I hardly knew him, he had been sick for years. He is sort of my confidential reader. When I write, I need to feel that maybe he’s listening to me. So I write poetry to continue to speak to him.
What kind of work did he do?
He was a night watchman. In a way, it’s what a poet does. He protects a certain kind of night that’s necessary while we wait for the arrival of day. I almost find it romantic.
Some would argue the Conservative government has not been a friend to arts and culture.
My mandate is completely apolitical. I’m thrilled that Parliament created this position and invested money in it [the job comes with an annual stipend of $20,000 plus up to $13,000 in travel expenses]. There should be a Musician of Parliament, a Painter of Parliament.
Does this mean you won’t be trying to find something that rhymes with Harper?
We haven’t been doing rhymes in poetry for more than 100 years.